It’s been one year since we lost Jackson.
No warning, no build-up — just gone in the night, stolen from us by some unknown cause.
For two months, we didn’t have an official explanation — so everything was suspect in our minds; any conspiracy seemed convincing. Fear for our own lives (or any future child) was creeping and persistent.
We were near-drowning in grief. The waves were fast, frequent, and terrifying. It was a struggle to make it day-by-day.
Yet despite all of this, we were immensely fortunate in several other ways. We were surrounded within minutes by family and friends, who’ve held us close ever since. Natalia and I had each other, in good health, side-by-side. We had careers that let us take as much time as we needed. She had years of training in trauma and recovery. We had a roof over our heads, and time to sit with our feelings and try to make some sliver of sense of it all.
With this first year behind us, I feel like telling you some of what I’ve learned: how I think about surviving a loss of this magnitude.
I don’t know of a better metaphor for grief than ocean waves.
Before September 2017, it’d been smooth waters for us.
Grief arrived in a surprise wave, and left us struggling for air. We’d come up for a gasp, then get plunged back below. In the early months, we learned to find the bottom and push back up.
With time, we noticed patterns with the waves. They really are waves: they rise, crest, churn, and fall back into quiet. A wave always returns to calm - and it was important to remember that when we were getting tumbled and dragged along the coral seafloor.
At first, they arrived every 20-40 minutes, and would knock me flat. Later, they became less-frequent, and we could tell when we were “due” for one — which meant they didn’t catch us off-guard as often.
Like a child learning to swim, we were initially completely overwhelmed - but as we got stronger in the surf, the waves that used to terrify us became familiar, and we learned to prepare ourselves, to duck-dive under some, ride-out and really feel others, and find time to catch our breath in the calmer moments.
There’s a concept from Bearing the Unbearable that has helped us make sense of our suffering. Grief ranges from zero-to-ten, and your ability to cope with that grief also ranges from zero-to-ten. Suffering is the difference between the two. Or, to put it in a little formula: Suffering = Grief - Coping
Grief is a variable that’s out of your control. The waves may be less frequent, but they still appear, sometimes as strong as ever.
Coping, though — you can work on coping. And with time, you strengthen the ability to cope with that grief — and as a result, suffering isn’t nearly as high as it once was.
Grief is going to visit all of us at some point. Death is a part of life, and if you’re close to any number of people, odds are you’re going to lose one of them at some point.
I write this not to drag you down under, but rather to set some expectations for whether-and-how you might approach grief when it appears in your life. If our culture would talk about grief more openly, then maybe it would feel less isolating and terrifying.
This morning, as 8:12am arrived, I could see myself exactly a year earlier, scrambling, my world shattering. I wanted to tell my year-ago self that, one year later, we would still be here.
If my year-ago self heard that, he would’ve rejected that idea completely. There is no way that a year ago, I would’ve been able to imagine myself functioning and grieving in this way. I would’ve felt that I had betrayed my memory of Jackson — because how could I carry on in any capacity after this loss?
And yet — I also know that a very quiet, calm part of my mind was telling me to hold on. I didn’t want to believe it, but I knew it was there. I knew that people survive trauma, and that there was probably a way through that - even if it felt like a betrayal to believe it.
Milestone dates often bring waves. We see Father’s Day, birthdays, or this anniversary on the calendar, and we brace ourselves.
One year out, we’ve certainly had our waves this month — and yet they are fewer and smaller than we were expecting. In many ways, we welcome them. We feel less-distressed when the wave tosses us, because we’ve been through so many.
There are also calm periods, and that can bring up guilt. If we’re feeling calm, especially on a milestone, does that mean we’ve forgotten him? Does it mean we’re not doing this properly? Of course not — but it’s a feeling that comes up.
It’s important to remember: on these milestone dates, our responsibility isn’t to make the waves; it’s to paddle out and sit there. If a wave comes up, we’ll ride it out, like we’ve done a thousand times. If it’s calm, we’ll sit there together, and find other ways to honor his memory.
Bubbo, we miss you every day. We miss your snorting giggles, your little songs, hearing your little slippers clomp around, and watching you explore the world around you. You brought (and continue to bring) so much love into all of our lives, and we are so thankful for the time we had together. You are loved, you are cherished, you are missed, and we will always hold you in our hearts.